A Short History
The Guild of Book Workers was founded on November 14, 1906, when forty-two individuals met in Emily Preston’s bindery at 223 E. 17th Street in New York City. Those attending the first meeting came from all of the book trades, including illuminating, printing and binding, and well as calligraphers, papermakers, and designers of type, finishing tools, book covers and bookplates. Even at the beginning, the Guild was dominated by bookbinders. During the first year, our membership numbered over 100, and by 1907, we had members from many states and from France, England, and Russia. One of the first events sponsored by the Guild was a lecture by T.J. Cobden-Sanderson in December 1907. The lecture attracted an audience of 676, demonstrating the high level of interest in the arts of the book at the turn of the 20th century.
At the beginning, potential Guild members were required to show examples of their craftsmanship before being allowed to join. In addition to Cobden-Sanderson, in the early decades our membership included binders such as Francis Sangorski and George Sutcliffe, Jules Domont, Edith Diehl, Mary Crease Sears, Otto Zahn, Alfred Launder, Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt, and Gertrude Stiles. The printers W.A. Dwiggins, D.B. Updike, and Frederic W. Goudy were also members. Goudy himself printed the Guild Yearbooks on handmade paper for the first five years of the organization.
The Guild was founded primarily to stage exhibitions of members’ work. In April 1907, the Guild held its first exhibition at the “old Tiffany Studios” in New York. The Guild mounted yearly exhibitions until the 1920s, both in New York and around the country. Some of the early New York-based exhibitions may have traveled, and some exhibitions were organized locally in major printing centers such as San Francisco. The early exhibitions had checklists available, although few survive in the Guild archive. Our first illustrated catalog appeared in 1912, its costs underwritten by a board member. Members could acquire a copy of the catalog for a total cost of only 30 cents postage. This extravagance wasn’t repeated for almost fifty years. We did not publish another illustrated catalog until 1959.
In 1948 it was decided that all exhibitions should be juried. It is possible that by the late 1940s, the Guild no longer required that potential members submit work for examination before being allowed to join, so juried exhibitions became essential to ensure a high level of craftsmanship in our exhibits. Published standards for exhibition entries were first drawn up around 1950.
The Guild suffered a decline in membership through the Depression and World War II, and during the late 1940s, there was discussion of disbanding the Guild. A vote was taken, with only three members suggesting dissolution, but at the same time, no one came forward to run for president of the Guild. The board devised a novel solution: the names of all board members were put on the ballot, and the one with the most votes was dragooned into taking over management of the failing organization.
Starting in the 1950s, the Guild was led by Laura Young, a dominant figure in New York bookbinding. Beginning with only 73 members in 1956, she slowly rebuilt the organization over the next twenty-five years. By the 1960s, all Guild exhibitions featured illustrated catalogues. The Guild compiled an ongoing, updated list of teachers of book crafts, and began publishing an annual list of suppliers of tools and materials. In the pre-internet age, this supply list was a godsend. Beginning in 1962, a journal reporting Guild activities, along with articles on binding, conservation and fine printing, began to be published three times per year. The Journal of the Guild of Book Workers is now published as an annual, with less focus on Guild news and greater emphasis on technical, historical, and scholarly articles of interest beyond the membership of the Guild.
During the 1960s and 1970s, our members led a renaissance in bookbinding in the United States, among them Carolyn Horton, Kathyrn and Gerhard Gerlach, Fritz and Trudy Eberhardt, Stella Patri, Paul Banks, Arno Werner, Bill Anthony, Don Etherington, Deborah Evetts, Betsy Palmer Eldridge, and Sam Ellenport. It would be difficult to exaggerate the role of Guild members in the revival of the arts of the book
in the 1970s, especially in the development of book conservation as a field separate from traditional trade bookbinding.
At mid-century, the Guild was dominated by New Yorkers, despite the membership being national. It has to be admitted that there was unhappiness around the country with the regime in New York, and, beginning in 1980, regional chapters were formed, with the first one in New England. The local chapters sponsor events such as lectures and workshops, and hold exhibitions of local members’ books. During the 1980s and 1990s, regional chapters were formed in ten parts of the country, and it is the events organized by the local chapters that are largely responsible for the steady growth of the Guild at the end of the 20th century.
In 1982 the Guild instituted the Seminar on Standards of Excellence in Hand Bookbinding, under the guidance of Don Etherington. This yearly conference features masters demonstrating complex techniques in fine and design binding, conservation, book art and associated crafts. By increasing exposure to master level handwork, this annual event has been instrumental in promoting excellence in the book crafts. DVDs are available of most of the demonstrations at the conference going back almost twenty years.
The Guild celebrated its centennial in 2006 in New York, where it was founded, with a four-day conference entitled “The Arts of the Book in North America.” During the last century, we have seen the change from bookbinding as a working class trade to a greater focus on fine craftsmanship, on conservation as opposed to restoration, on books and bindings increasingly viewed as art-forms, and on the greater dominance of digital media.
The Guild continues to hold juried exhibitions every three years. These exhibitions travel, usually to a half dozen venues across the country, and all of our exhibitions are documented by color catalogs illustrating every entry. During the last few decades, the content of our exhibitions has changed as our membership has changed. Thirty years ago most of the books in a Guild show would have been artistic fine bindings executed in leather, with gold and blind tooling and decorative onlays and inlays. Many books in contemporary Guild exhibitions are created by a single individual responsible for both the content of the book and the creation of the physical artifact. Our exhibitions feature design binding, book art, fine printing, digital media, artist’s books, and calligraphy.
The Guild currently has 850 members, both amateur and professional, from all areas of the country, and is the only national organization for practitioners of the arts of the book. Our first century was a period of dynamic change in the book crafts, and the Guild of Book Workers was at the forefront of these developments.
[The Guild is indebted to former GBW Archivist Barbara Kretzmann, whose research provided much of the information about the first fifty years of the Guild. ]
The original GBW Logo used from 1906-1959
The Guild of Book Workers logo was designed by Anita Walker, member from New York City, who drew inspiration from the Guild's original logo with the outline of a book. The design features an open book welcoming all aspects of the book arts as the organization expanded to adopt not just binders, but calligraphers, printers, marblers and the nascent artist's book movement. The logo was chosen through a contest held in 1959 that was conducted by Paul Banks, then Publicity Chair. Even though a $25 award was offered, only five entries were received. In 2004-2005 Eric Alstrom, Publicity Chair, coordinated a competition to create a new logo for the Guild's next century. This time twenty-two designs were received. Interestingly enough, Anita Walker's 1959 design prevailed.